Volume, Volume, Volume!
November 24th, 1998 

Randy: Turn it up, man.

Gary: What?

Randy: Turn it up louder!

Gary: I can't hear you over the laser fire!

Randy: Your point being?

Gary: I gotcha. Crank it up! Because that's what this week's column is all about. Sound. Big sound. 3D-surround, bowel-shaking, subwoofer-woofing, mega-gaming sound!

Randy: Sound is fully half the experience of most computer-generated fun. Infotainment disks and the web are teeming with musical soundtracks. Arcade games boom with ultra-realistic effects, and adventure disks are scored with complete movie quality vocal and musical performances. If you are still listening to your Mac on it's built in speakers, then listen up!

Gary: Let's say it together:


Randy: Wow that felt good. Kind of a Gregorian chant thing goin' there.

Gary: More fun than the Holy Hand Grenade. Yes, folks, we are talking about external speakers for your gaming machine.

Randy: Maybe a few readers are out there saying, "Hey, I'm set. My 5200 has stereo speakers built right in." We say, "Forget those things!"

For as little as $50 dollars you can equip your pride and joy with a three-piece speaker system that will make you wince at the thought of ever listening to those built-in tin cans again.

Gary: Apple has always put internal speakers in every Mac. Many Wintel users wish they could say the same for their machine's maker. However, the onboard sound system in just about every Mac, except maybe the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, is about the equivalent of your granddad's old pocket AM radio.

Randy: Is that what that was? I always thought that was a hearing aid.

Gary: The point is, while many gamers spend every precious dollar they have on the next hottest 3D board or a G3 upgrade card, what they really need is immersive sound to complete their gaming experience.

Randy: Exactly. Imagine how much cooler Tomb Raider II would be if you could actually feel the floor rumble from your motorcycle's engine. Or if you could actually hear that ship zooming in behind you in Terminal Velocity just in time to swing around nail it in an earthshaking explosion right off your starboard wing.

Gary: And that's another point. The Mac's internal speaker is mono, and that just doesn't fly with modern games. Many games, like Quake, use stereo sound to give you audio clues, like where an enemy is, or where a body of water can be found. If you absolutely cannot afford a set of external speakers, just plug in some headphones into the speaker port on the back of your Mac, or you will be at a serious disadvantage.

Kind of like Randy is whenever he plays any game with me.

Randy: Uh, huh. If that's important to you, I'll let you keep thinking that. Let's move on, shall we? If money is too tight, another option is to pull that old boom box off the shelf, run a line to your stereo auxiliary-in plug and use that as your speaker setup. Your local Radio Shack carries all the adapters you need to get connected for less than five bucks. It won't match good dedicated speakers but it will blow your 5200's speakers away.

Several people have also asked us about saving money by buying an AV monitor with built-in speakers.

Randy: Even expensive, so-called AV monitor speakers pale in comparison to midrange dedicated external speakers. One problem with having speakers in the monitor chassis is that speakers' magnetic cones tend to play havoc on a monitor's picture. Even pricey monitors with lots of shielding between the speakers and the tube still can show side effects when the speakers are at full blast. And the sound on internal speakers is pretty tinny at best. Because of the vibrations from bass frequencies, internal speakers are specifically designed to have little bass signal capability.

With even inexpensive external speakers, you can get a powered three-speaker system including a subwoofer that will have more than enough bass to rock your world. Plus, many external speakers have independent volume and EQ controls to further enhance your sound.

Gary: When shopping for any speakers, computer or otherwise, you may be inundated with technical specifications, such as dynamic range, frequency range, and stereo separation. To anybody but a true audiophile, these can be overwhelming.

Our best advice for someone shopping for speakers is to ignore the specs for the most part, and simply listen to the speakers and find the ones that you like the best. Sometimes you can't listen before you buy (for example if you purchase them through mail order outlets). Either way, make sure that you can return the speakers if you don't like them. Even if you have had a listen, they probably will sound different once you get them hooked to your computer than they did at the computer store.

Randy: So what should you look for in a set of computer speakers, besides how they sound?

First, make sure you get a three-piece speaker set at the minimum. While some two piece sets have decent sound, nothing can match the booming sound of a dedicated subwoofer.

Next look for external controls. Volume control is pretty standard but equalization and panning controls are very nice to have. Some speaker sets even have mute buttons and preset EQ buttons for extra convenience.

Gary: Also, look for 3D sound capability. Many of today's games use 3D surround for extra realism and you want a sound setup that can tap into this. Some speakers feature some type of extra bass boost system. Whether it's MegaBass, HyperBass, SuperBass, NastyBass, or ThirdBass, it's a good feature.

Finally, look for as many line in and outs as you can find. A headphone out is a must. However many speakers also have a mic line throughput on the front, a very convenient touch, and some have a second line in on the back for an additional sound source, say for your Discman when your CD-ROM is already full.

Randy: While we don't have time or room to mention all the speaker vendors out there, here's a quick list of some of our favorites:

On the low end of the price scale, good old LabTech has several offerings in the three-piece speaker market, with a few for less than $50.00.

Audioworks has three-piece speaker sets starting at less than $70.00.

Altec Lansing has a nice line of computer speakers in the PowerCube series. Their middle of the road setup runs about $80.00.

If your are willing to step into the $100 range and up, you should take a look at Cambridge Soundworks.

Also, Yamaha has some great setups for under $200.00.

Aura offers excellent sound in the Aspect series of speakers--in particular the Aspect 20's are some of our favorites.

And for the King Ding-Dong Daddy Phat sound only the best can offer, Bose serves up the Acoustimass series for the tune of around $600.00. If you want the name without the huge price tag, check out their MediaMate system for about $200.00. While it costs less than its big brother, it still puts out that sweet Bose sound for less mulah.

Gary: Don't forget about proper placement while you are setting up your new speakers. Get those main speakers in front of you, not off to the sides or on the floor, and preferably at ear level. Be sure to get at least three feet in between them for true stereo separation. If you go crazy and get a five-speaker system place the two additional surround sound speakers behind you, facing your head at 45-degree angles.

Randy: Also, put the subwoofer unit directly in front of you at floor level. If you place the woofer right, a good gaming session should leave your pelvic region feeling like you just had Ultrasound surgery.

Gary: That's true. Often, I will put some Pink Floyd, or some Barry White into the CD-ROM drive (anything with good bass) and… well, let's just say pick up some good vibrations.

Randy: Eewww! That's disgusting! You listen to Barry White?!? I prefer U2.

Gary: Really? I should try that.